Two dozen eyeballs focused on my bald head. I felt like the poor bugger in a crime drama who comes to the penultimate moment in the scene and finds the tiny red dot from a laser-guided rifle on his chest. Small puddles of sweat beaded on the varnished hardwood. Five sets of chests heaved with varying degrees of ferocity.

Our undefeated season hung in the balance. We were losing by two points with less than 20 seconds to play. We regained possession of the basketball with a great defensive play, and I beckoned the referee for my final timeout.

As I knelt in front of my players, I was at a loss for words. Momentarily. Which never happens. I’ve been told by other coaches, parents, and referees that I’m a calm and cool customer on the sidelines. You can never tell if I won the lottery or if my dog ran away.

But in that moment, I had a temporary brain freeze. Our team had the best player in five counties, but everyone in the gym, including the other coach, knew that. Should I marker up the whiteboard with a play for her anyway? We’ve practiced end-of-game situations in practice many times, just for a day like today.

In that moment of hesitation, one of my players sensed my trepidation. I didn’t want to blow it for the team, even though I had as much control of the outcome as a particle-board shack with a tornado bearing down on it. She looked me in the eye, and she said, “Don’t worry Coach, we’ve got this.”

She was 12 years old. And she wasn’t the most talented girl in the starting five.

Then she looked at her teammates, and they all nodded their heads, chins banging on their sternums. I drew something on the whiteboard just to make it official, but I don’t recall what it was. We put our hands in the pile, yelled “Team,” and the players took the floor.

The referee handed the basketball to our player, and the ball was put in play and the clock began to extinguish. I honestly don’t recall how the chaos transpired. All that I remember is that the young lady who looked me in the eye in the huddle and assured me that everything was going to be okay, scored the basket to tie the game and send it to overtime. And then she scored the basket in overtime that gave our team the victory.

After we shook hands with our opponents, players and parents gathered on various parts of the court because ours was the last game of the afternoon. I stood off to the side and was gathering my emotions and my thoughts. Our undefeated season had been preserved. All my players were happy (and all the mommies and daddies, too). My heart was beating faster than a Wall Street wrangler attempting to make one last trade with 30 seconds left before the final bell.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a father approaching me. It was the father of the young lady who’d made the tying and winning baskets. He shook my hand and he congratulated me on the victory and on my brilliant coaching strategy that brought home the victory.

I stopped him before he got too far, and I shared with him what his daughter said in that final huddle. He was silent for a minute that felt like five.

And then he said to me that the reason his daughter was able to express that confidence in herself and her teammates, and then go out and do what was necessary to help her team win was because of my leadership, but more importantly, the way that I treat my players. I don’t know if he was being kind or not.

I am reminded of two things Sherri Coale, former women’s basketball coach at the University of Oklahoma, told me about leadership. Coale challenged me, “allow your colleagues to bring their own special gifts to the task at hand; let them shock you, wow you, show off and do a remarkable job.” The second point she made is that you don’t have to have the title of “boss” to be a leader.

University of Maryland women’s basketball coach Brenda Frese told me, “Instill confidence so that your people believe they can accomplish great things.”

Don’t misinterpret the message. The leader, the boss, the head coach, at the end of the day is responsible to make the key decisions. However, when your team members feel unshackled to make unprogrammed contributions for the good of the enterprise there are a couple of great things that happen.

  1. They feel more engaged in their work and thus become more productive.
  2. They enjoy being at work, and that attitude is on display for your other team members and for your customers.
  3. They feel that you value them, and that you value their thoughts and opinions and therefore they’re going to be more dedicated to you and to the enterprise.

Are you inspiring your team members to utilize their special gifts and talents to make a positive impact on your enterprise?

Latest posts by Dave Salter (see all)